PASADENA, Calif. — Ten snaps into the game they had spent their lives waiting to play, the Texas Longhorns had their storybook torn to pieces.
There would be no senior-quarterback symmetry at the Rose Bowl, no trusting in experience.
Their hopes for a national title hung as limply as quarterback Colt McCoy’s right arm.
And then, just when a skinny, wide-eyed freshman somehow found a way to make the Longhorns believe in a new kind of happy ending, the Alabama Crimson Tide ripped that one away, too.
With McCoy watching from the sideline and his replacement, Garrett Gilbert, poised to lead the Longhorns on a dramatic game-winning drive, Alabama delivered reality with yet another cruel, punishing blow.
Eryk Anders pummeled Gilbert on a perfectly timed blind-side blitz to force a victory-sealing fumble, and the Crimson Tide went on to a 37-21 victory in the Bowl Championship Series title game in front of 94,906 fans Thursday night at the Rose Bowl.
“I had a lot of confidence in our defense,” said No. 1 Alabama’s Nick Saban, who won his second national title as a coach and led the Crimson Tide to their first championship since 1992. “When you have playmakers, they make plays.”
One of the biggest came on UT’s second drive, when McCoy, a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist who won more career games (45) as a starting quarterback than anyone in major-college football history, was hit by Marcell Dareus and left the game with an injured right shoulder.
With No. 2 UT staggered by the loss of its four-year starter, Alabama built a 24-6 lead and appeared in full control.
But Gilbert, a highly touted prospect from Lake Travis whose father played in five Super Bowls, overcame a shaky start and brought the Longhorns back with two touchdown passes to Jordan Shipley in the second half.
After the second, Texas (13-1) made a defensive stop that forced Alabama (14-0) to punt.
The Longhorns — who won a national title in January 2006 at the Rose Bowl with a legendary late drive led by quarterback Vince Young — took over at their 7-yard line trailing 24-21 with 3:14 remaining.
“I thought (Gilbert) was going to take us down and score,” UT coach Mack Brown said.
Said Shipley: “Everyone on the team thought we would win the game.”
But on the second play, Anders — a linebacker from Smithson Valley — burst into the backfield untouched, leveled Gilbert and knocked the ball loose. Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw recovered.
The game was all but over at that point, but Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram — who rushed for 116 yards on 22 carries — scored on a 1-yard run to put things out of reach.
“I was proud of their fight,” Brown said of the Longhorns. “I was proud of their toughness.”
But McCoy needed more than toughness to stay on the field after Dareus jammed his helmet into McCoy’s shoulder on the fifth play of UT’s second possession.
“It wasn’t a painful hit,” McCoy said. “I’ve taken that hit over and over in my life. I have no pain in my arm. I just can’t feel my arm. I would have given everything I had to be out there with my team.”
In the end, the Longhorns’ chances for a comeback were hindered by a questionable strategic decision late in the first half that Brown called “an absolute killer.”
After the UT defense held Alabama to a field goal that made the score 17-6, the Longhorns called a timeout and ran an extra play from their territory with 15 seconds left.
Gilbert attempted a shovel pass to D.J. Monroe, who bobbled the ball, allowing Dareus to pull it out of the air and rumble 28 yards for a game-breaking touchdown.
Still, UT players weren’t second-guessing.
“There’s always things you can look back on and wish they were different,” Shipley said. “But sometimes you just have to look at all the ways you’ve been blessed.”